A Predator Comes to Call

I was putting old chandelier crystals on my little Norfolk Island pine as I do every year around this time of year to honor all evergreens. It was almost November. I recalled a childhood experience… my little brother and I used to clink the beveled crystal pieces together in order to hear the music they produced when adults weren’t paying attention. Now each crystal shimmered like liquid rain caught by the late afternoon light. Suddenly a loud crash and thump interrupted my reverie. Oh no, a bird had hit the window – hard. I raced out the door. Yellow talons shuddered, but the hawk was dead when I reached it.

 Hawk is considered to be a Messenger from the dead by some Indigenous peoples – and the tidings the bird brings may be positive or negative… Hawks speak to power and they are also predators. In my life, hawks appeared the day I buried my brother; I also found a dead one on the day my mother died.

Context fleshes out the individual tale…

I brought the sharp shinned hawk in the house to examine it in detail; later I buried it outside my window.

Close up it was easy to identify this hawk. He had a small head, a squared tail, short wings, and spindly yellow talons. This one was quite large and brown with yellow eyes (adults have orange to red eyes) so I knew it was a young female; they are sometimes almost twice the size of males. Some are large enough to be confused with the Coopers hawk who look almost exactly like the Sharp shinned hawk except for size; the former has a larger head and a more rounded tail. 

The Sharp shinned hawk is the smallest of the three Accipiter hawks; the other two are the previously mentioned Cooper’s hawk and the large grey Goshawk. I have seen all of them in flight or perched on a fruit tree near the house; I have also seen them in Abiquiu during the winter. 

Because I feed my birds, I frequently encounter this streak of lightening as it soars low close to the ground. It strikes with a vengeance – feathers fly – and the bird disappears. My dove Lily b sits in his plant window that is open to the sky above most of the day watching birds. When one of the Accipiters slams into the window it scares Lily b off his basket but otherwise does not harm him. Afterwards, he sometimes coos indignantly at the intrusion! So far none of the hawks that have hit his window have been killed in all these years; this one struck a window on the other side of the house… a very strange occurrence, the possible meaning of which struck me like lightening. Was this bird’s death the harbinger of another predator’s demise? The election was a few days away. I hardly dared to hope.

These hawks also hunt by perching in dense foliage or by approaching stealthily through dense cover, then bursting forth with incredibly swift flight to capture hapless bird in the air – a horrifying thing to witness.

The Sharp shinned hawks are also the most migratory of the Accipiters breeding north to the Canadian Shield in Canada and Alaska and wintering as far south as Panama. Apparently, during fall and spring migrations, these birds travel together with dozens passing by coastlines, lakes, and mountain ridges. Some, however, remain in one place year round. I have always had the Sharp shinned hawk around here during the winter, and I also noted that while in Abiquiu I had them as regular visitors during the winter months; sometimes one would perch on the porch railing and look in the window!

Even if you don’t see them a sudden absence of birds at your feeder will alert you to hawk presence. These days in spite of the fact that they prey on songbirds, seeing the Sharp shinned hawk reminds me that the species is in decline especially in the east and I am sorry about that. Climate change is reducing the range of Sharp shinned hawks who have lost/ or will lose 55 percent of their range overall.

These birds live in mixed or coniferous forests like mine, riparian areas and open deciduous woodlands like the cottonwood forest around the casita in New Mexico. They nest in groves of evergreens of some kind and avoid open country.

During courtship, pairs circle above calling; fluffy white under tail coverts may be spread out to side during some displays. Males fly high and dive steeply into woods (about 20 percent lose their lives hitting trees during flight through thick forest). The nest site is very well concealed, usually in a dense conifer (such as spruce or fir) within a wooded area or a thick grove, and is placed about 20-60′ above ground, but it can be lower or higher in dense cover. The structure is a platform of sticks, lined with bark strips, twigs, grass. Both sexes bring nest material, but the female probably does most of the building. Four or five eggs are laid and incubated by the female while the male brings food. The youngsters can fly at about six weeks of age but both parents remain nearby for another couple of weeks. In addition to songbirds these hawks feed their young rodents, bats, squirrels, lizards, frogs, and snakes, although songbirds are a mainstay.

Native peoples relied upon hawks to protect them through trying times. As messengers they brought news. Today I can’t escape the gut sense I had that having the hawk slam into my window meant a human predator would soon be vanquished. I carried this intriguing thought and hopeful feeling around for more than a week before getting the news.

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